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French Journalist Held by Taliban Released

A French journalist arrested last month in Afghanistan was released Saturday and handed over to French diplomats along the Pakistani border.

Michel Peyrard, who had entered the country illegally and disguised himself as an Afghan woman, appeared relaxed and was smiling when he crossed the border after sundown.

"I was not tortured," he told reporters. "They were treating me fairly and they gave me food. They questioned me about my profession. This morning they told me 'you are going home."'

Peyrard's two Pakistani companions — Mohammad Arfan and Mukrram Khan — were also expected to be released but at the last minute were ordered back to the Afghan city of Jalalabad, the French reporter said. A Taliban official who accompanied Peyrard to the border said the two Pakistanis would be released Sunday.

Peyrard told reporters he was held with a jailed Japanese photojournalist, Daigen Yanagida of Tokyo, who he said was doing "perfectly well."

Peyrard, who works for Paris Match magazine, was arrested Oct. 9 in Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan dressed in the head-to-toe burqa worn by women. He wanted to report on the U.S. airstrikes, which had begun two days earlier.

Taliban authorities had threatened to try him as a spy.

Peyrard said the Taliban assumed he was a spy because he was carrying a satellite telephone. He said the first day of detention was "quite tough" but that conditions later improved, and he was allowed to go to the market with armed escorts.

The Taliban judiciary follows a unique legal system based on Islamic Sharia law. The system does not include such institutionalized forms as arraignment, indictment and other procedures traditional under Western law.

Reports of suspects being charged with specific offenses are often simply verbal allegations which may be altered at any time.

There were similar statements about espionage charges pending against British journalist Yvonne Ridley when she was arrested in Afghanistan last month. She was eventually released without any trial after 10 days.

Another French journalist, 33-year-old Aziz Zemouri of the weekly Le Figaro Magazine, was arrested in Afghanistan by the Taliban last month and handed over to Pakistani authorities after five days.

In Paris, President Jacques Chirac hailed Peyrard's release, saying "this liberation marks the importance attached to the full respect of the freedom of the press."

French Culture Minister Catherine Tasca expressed satisfaction that efforts to free Peyrard had succeeded, "after weeks of worry."

Paris Match's executive editor, Alain Genestar, told France-Info radio that numerous people and elements were involved in the process of liberating Peyrard. Those he cited included French diplomats and Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban ambassador in Pakistan.

A Paris Match official had quickly taken Peyrard's portfolio to show the Taliban, and Paris-Match had a cover story on Peyrard "not to make him into a hero, nor a martyr or a hostage" but "to very quickly affirm his status as a journalist," Genestar said.